2011-12 WHL Eastern Conference preview

By Glen Erickson

Photo: Highly touted Swedish forward Victor Rask is making his North American Debut with the Calgary Hitman this season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference heading into the 2011-12 season. Things could change on the rosters as the deadline for WHL teams to announce their three 20-year-olds comes along in mid-October. And, near the end of October, we will also find out which NHL teams are prepared to keep their recently drafted prospects beyond the first ten regular season games.

East Division

Saskatoon Blades (Last season: 56-13-1-2; 1st in East Division)

The Blades added to their legacy of producing outstanding regular season play, followed by underachieving post-season results. A portion of the future was mortgaged last season when Saskatoon acquired Brayden Schenn (PHI) from the Brandon Wheat Kings for a truck-load of draft picks. Moving forward, the Blades will rely on a collection of youngsters who have had some valuable experience playing with some elite juniors. Gone are Schenn, Marek Viedensky (SJ), Curtis Hamilton (EDM), Stefan Elliott (COL) and the likes of veteran rearguard Teigan Zahn (TB) and goaler Steven Sanford.

Up front, Josh Nicholls has become a reliable scorer, while Jake Trask is a 20-year-old the Blades will depend upon for production and leadership. Darian Dziurzynski (OTT) is eligible to return, which would be huge for a team that will need to replace some of the high-octane offense lost to graduation. Import Matej Stransky (DAL), Brent Benson, and Chris Collins add important depth.

Duncan Siemens (COL) anchors the backend, coming off a successful training camp with the Avalanche. The additon of Kyle Schmidt from the Calgary Hitmen, along with Dalton Thrower, Darren Dietz (MTL) and Connor Cox privide the makings of an adequate top four in front of import goaltender Andrey Makarov from Russia. The Blades recently moved 20-year-old goalie Adam Morrison, who was drafted two years ago by the Philadelphia Flyers but unsigned, to the Vancouver Giants.

Moose Jaw Warriors (Last season: 40-26-2-4; 2nd in East Division)

The impact of a new arena and a new head coach will keep onlookers curious as the Warriors look to continue building toward WHL supremacy. Mike Stothers takes over behind the bench and will hope Quinton Howden (FLA) might return to make things a easier on the group of forwards. Howden, who played for Team Canada at the WJC in Buffalo, is an outstanding skater and a versatile veteran.

Dylan Hood and Cody Beach (STL) will have to be consistent contributors this season, although Beach earned a seven-game suspension in the Warriors first regular-season game due to a checking to the head penalty.

The Warriors possess perhaps the biggest, most solid blue line brigade in the entire WHL, with Dylan McIlrath (NYR), Joel Edmundson (STL), Dallas Ehrhardt, Kendall McFaull (WPG), Collin Bowman, and Morgan Rielly. Bowman, who can also play up front, has not yet returned from a pro tryout. Rielly is expected to be among the top defensemen chosen at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Things are up in the air between the pipes following the departure of workhorse Thomas Heemskerk (SJ) last season. Another overage goalie is in the mix in form of Deven Dubyk, while Spencer Trembley may have looked like the answer. However, the Warriors also recently acquired Luke Siemens in a deal with the Everett Silvertips. Who will be the go-to-guy, for now, remains a mystery.

Brandon Wheat Kings (Last season: 32-31-1-8; 3rd in East Division)

The Wheat Kings rode the hot hands of forwards Mark Stone (OTT), Scott Glennie (DAL), and Matt McKay through the second half of the season to earn a playoff berth after many prognosticators wrote the team off when Brayden Schenn was dealt to Saskatoon. Stone is back in Brandon this year, while Glennie and McKay are gone. Along with Stone, Michael Ferland (CAL) will be looked upon to up the ante, while import Alessio Bertaggia from Sitzerland tallied a hat trick in his forst WHL regular season game.

Veteran Brodie Melnychuk will be a key leader this season, although he is presently on the sidelines due to injury. Jordan Fransoo (OTT) and Eric Roy are also back, but it is a couple of youngsters that will garner plenty of notice. Ayrton Nikkel, acquired in the Schenn deal, will get a long look in his rookie campaign while Ryan Pulock returns after a 40-point rookie season as a 16-year-old.

In goal, the duo of Liam Liston and Corbin Boes are back, providing the Wheaties with solid depth, and perhaps a valuable asset to dangle across the WHL this season should one of the two establish himself as Brandon’s starter.

Prince Albert Raiders (Last season: 31-36-2-3; 4th in East Division)

The Raiders appear to be in a terrific position to rise to new hieights in the Eastern Conference, particularly with a deep bunch of forwards returning this season. Mark McNeill (CHI) garnered plenty of attention last season and wound up a Chicago Blackhawk at the NHL draft. He’s back in P.A. now, and leads an offensively capable group that inlcudes 20-year-olds Brandon Herrod, Jonathan Parker, and Justin Maylan. Youngster Mike Winther is ready to establish himself as a reliable, consistent WHLer.

The Raiders will need a few defensemen to develop quickly at both ends of the ice. Harrison Ruopp (PHX) can produce good puck movement, but the likes of Tyler Yaworski and Austin Bourhis will have to improve. Antoine Corbin, who began his WHL career in Kelowna, is the Raiders most experienced d-man. In goal, Eric Williams appears to be the number one netminder, taking over from Jamie Tucker. Cole Holowenko will begin the season as the backup.

Regina Pats (Last season: 23-29-7-3; 5th in East Division)

The Pats seem poised to earn a playoff spot this season, their first under new head coach Pat Conacher. The organization has been busy on the trade market this past off-season as well, particulary on the back end.

On the blue line, Regina has parted ways with Myles Bell, dealt to the Kelowna Rockets during the pre-season in return for Colton Jobke (MIN) and some draft picks. Replacing Bell’s offensive output will fall on the shoulders of 20-year-old Art Bidlevski and recently acquired rearguard Brandon Underwood, who came over during the off-season from the Kamloops Blazers. Import Ricard Blidstrand (PHI) is back for his second full season with the Pats, and if Brandon Davidson (EDM) returns, the solid backend should make life a little easier for veteran goaler Matt Hewitt. The Pats are confident enough in Hewitt that they moved veteran Damien Ketlo to the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Up front, Jordan Weal (LA) leads the offense. The speedy playmaker has averaged almost 90 points per season over the past three years. Chandler Stephenson (2012) is a highly-touted forward, entering his second season in Regina. Veterans Campbell Elyniuk and Lane Scheidl will also have to up their scoring output.

Swift Current Broncos (Last season: 26-44-0-2; 6th in East Division)

The Broncos boast a number of drafted juniors on a roster that will have to garner every ounce of potential to improve on last season’s paltry offensive output. Adam Lowry (WPG) will have to be a catalyst, while overagers Brad Hoban and Taylor Vause will have to contribute consistently. It is also time for Christiam Magnus to make a significant impact in his fourth WHL season. Replacing the input provided by veteran Justin Dowling last season will be a challenge in Swift Current this season.

Defensemen Reece Scarlett (NJ) and Richard Nedomlel (DET) will have to sparkle for the Broncos. The remainder of the blueline brigade is experienced, but none have shown a propensity to produce offensively yet. A break out season for the likes of Tanner Muth, Dalton Reum or Jordan Evans would ease the burden on Scarlett and Nedomlel.

In goal, after depending on 20-year-old Mark Friesen last year, the Broncos recently acquired another 20-year-old, Jon Groenheyde from the Edmonton Oil Kings, in return for overage forward Jordan Peddle. Either Austin Smith (DAL) or Steven Myland will be the backup.

Central Division

Red Deer Rebels (Last season: 48-16-4-4; 1st in Central Division)

The Rebels will again see plenty of NHL scouting personnel both at home and on the road, after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) captured the attention of the hockey world last season. A young 2012 eligible rearguard, Matt Dumba, will be the drawing card this time around.

Dumba, who arrived in Red Deer from the Calgary Edge Academy, was a hit at the NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp in August, after a successful performance at the World U18 Championship. He was the WHL Rookie of the Year last season.

Dumba will have plenty of veteran support on the backend if Alexander Petrovic (FLA) and Justin Weller (PHX) both return. Aaron Borejko is another reliable veteran defender.

While Nugent-Hopkins is not expected to return, it would be huge for Red Deer if the Edmonton Oilers did the unthinkable. The first overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft, Nugent-Hopkins is a dynamic offensive producer. Import Johan Persson (NYI) and Turner Elson (CAL) will see more ice time this seaosn as the Rebels also look to replace the contribution of Byron Froese (CHI).

Replacing goalie Darcy Kuemper (MIN) is another big challenge in Red Deer. Import Patrik Batosak and Bolton Pouliot will battle for the starting job.

Medicine Hat Tigers (Last season: 46-18-4-4; 2nd in Central Division)

The Tigers had the benefit last season of placing four or five signed juniors on their power play, making for a poised special teams unit. With Linden Vey (LA) not likely to return and Wacey Hamilton (OTT) graduating, Emerson Etem (ANA) and Kellen Tochkin (VAN) will have to step up in the Gas City this season.

Also ready to improve on last season is Hunter Shinkaruk (2013), who collected 43 points in his rookie season. Another key up front will be big power forward Kale Kessey (PHX), who is capable of creating open ice and loose pucks in the attacking zone.

Even if the Tigers cannot return all of their eligible defensemen, they still look like the Eastern Conference’s most complete team out of the gate. A healthy Alex Theriau (DAL) this season will be a bonus, while veterans Thomas Carr, Jayce Coyle, and Dylan Busenius round out a solid top four on the blue line. All of this in front of goaltender Tyler Bunz (EDM), one of the WHL’s top keepers last season.

Kootenay Ice (Last season: 46-21-1-4; 3rd in Central Division; WHL Champions)

Key grads from the Ice roster include Cody Eakin (WAS) and Brayden McNabb (BUF), yet the organization will return a number of players from the group that captured the WHL Championship a year ago.

Talented forward Max Reinhart (CGY) is back after a record-setting playoff run, along with his 16-year-old brother, Sam, up front. A pair of 20-year-olds, Jesse Ismond and Joe Antilla are also expected back, along with Drew Czerwonka (EDM)

Joey Leach (CAL) and James Martin (CAL) will anchor the defensive corps this season, along with Jagger Dirk. Hayden Rintoul was dealt to the Victoria Royals during the off-season, making room for youngsters Jeff Hubic and Mike Simpson to vy for ice time. Goaltender Nathan Liewen (BUF), who was outstanding during Kootenay’s post-season success, is back as a 20-year-old.

Edmonton Oil Kings (Last season: 31-34-2-5; 4th in Central Division)

The Oil Kings appear to be ready to enter the upper echelon among Eastern Conference teams, with some in the WHL of the opinion that Edmonton should challenge for the Central Division crown this season.

Should this come to pass, it is likely an explosive group up front will have played a key role in the Oil Kings successes. Michael St. Croix (NYR) and Dylan Wruck have played well together in the past, finishing 1-2 in team scoring last season. Their experience alone should elevate the Kings special teams performance. If import Kristians Pelss (EDM) can improve, and if veteran Josh Lazowski from Leduc, Alberta, can stay healthy and productive, the Oil Kings should fill the net with some consistency. Rookie Curtis Lazar from Vernon, B.C. is an offensively skilled forward with some grit, and an effective leader in recent years with the Pursuit of Excellence Academy’s bantam and midget programs.

On defense, the Oli Kings are loaded with a core group that includes Mark Pysyk (BUF), Keegan Lowe (CAR), and Griffin Reinhart (2012). Reinhart had an impressionable season last year as a 16-year-old and should continue to improve this year, as he is already highly-touted among draft eligible WHL blueliners.

Laurent Brossoit (CGY) will handle the goaltending duties, as Edmonton recently sent 20-year-old Jon Groenheyde to the Swift Currenmt Broncos.

Lethbridge Hurricanes (Last season: 23-36-5-8; 5th in Central Division)

The re-build continues in Lethbridge as the Hurricanes fortunes on most nights may hang squarely on the performance of goaltender Brandon Anderson (WAS). Anderson battled his way into the Capitals system last year, earning a contract through a free agent tryout. However, establishing himself among the elite WHL goaltenders will be challenging this season. Curiously, Lethbridge recently added 20-year-old netminder Damien Ketlo in a trade with the Regina Pats, making their entire 20-year-old situation very interesting.

Up front, the Hurricanes will depend on overage players while the youngsters continue to cut their teeth in the WHL. Cam Braes and Brody Sutter (CAR) are key forwards in Lethbridge that will have to increase their production this season. Veteran Austin Fyten collected 54 pooints last season, and will be given every opportunity to improve on that total. The ‘Canes saw glimmers of hope from Russ Maxwell (2012) last season. Recently acquired Matt Marantz (from the Spokane Chiefs) is another 20-year-old expected to contribute consistently.

The Hurricanes bring decent size on the back end, with 6’4 Derek Ryckman back for his third full season. Import Albin Blonqvist checks in at 6’3, although this is his rookie campaign in the WHL. Continued improvement from offensive rearguard Landon Oslanski is needed this season, while Tyler Kiziuk and Reid Jackson can count on playing meaningful minutes.

Calgary Hitmen (Last season: 20-47-3-2; 6th in Central Division)

The Hitmen are also rebuilding after a few seasons of success that included a trip to the 2010 Memorial Cup. Last season, the young roster struggled to find the net and missed the playoffs. The club returns a significant number of players from last year, so they can count on a soewhat experienced bunch this season.

Among forwards, Brooks Macek (DET) is back, along with 20-year-old Jimmy Bubnick (WPG). Cody Sylvester has shown flashes of offensive skill and should improve this season. Brady Brassart came over from the high-scoring Spokane Chiefs during the off-season, and should chip in offensively. Justin Kirsch is also back, after leading the team in goal scoring last year. Import forward Victor Rask (CAR) should be a great addition.

Ben Wilson is the anchor on the blue line, a 20-year-old the team can count on for leadership and consistency. Alex Roach (LA) recenlty signed a NHL contract, which should buoy his fortunes and development. Peter Kosterman, who surprisingly went undrafted in June, will have something to prove this season.

With veteran goaltenders Brandon Glover and Mike Snider still on the roster, along with newly acquired 17-year-old Chris Driedger, look for trade winds to blow from Calgary in the near future.

Eastern Conference Prospects at 2011-2012 Training Camps
(**denotes signed by NHL team)

Brandon Wheat Kings
Michael Ferland, Calgary Flames, 2010
Jordan Fransoo, Ottawa Senators, 2011
Scott Glennie, Dallas Stars, 2009 **
Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators, 2010

Calgary Hitmen

Trevor Cheek, San Jose Sharks, F/A
Brooks Macek, Detroit Red Wings, 2010
Peter Kosterman, Calgary Flames, F/A
Alex Roach, Los Angeles Kings, F/A **
Victor Rask, Carolina Hurricanes, 2011

Edmonton Oil Kings
Cameron Abney, Edmonton Oilers, 2009 **
Laurent Brossoit, Calgary Flames, 2011
Travis Ewanyk, Edmonton Oilers, 2011
Martin Gernat, Edmonton Oilers, 2011
Keegan Lowe, Carolina Hurricanes, 2011
Kristians Pelss, Edmonton Oilers, 2010
Mark Pysyk, Buffalo Sabres, 2010 **
Michael St. Croix, New York Rangers, 2011
Klarc Wilson, Winnipeg Jets, F/A
Dylan Wruck, San Jose Sharks, F/A

Kootenay Ice
Joe Antilla, San Jose Sharks, F/A
Drew Czerwonka, Edmonton Oilers, 2010
Cody Eakin, Washington Capitals, 2009 **
Joey Leach, Calgary Flames, 2010
Nathan Lieuwen, Buffalo Sabres, 2011
James Martin, Calgary Flames, F/A
Brayden McNabb, Buffalo Sabres, 2009 **
Max Reinhart, Calgary Flames, 2010 **

Lethbridge Hurricanes

Brandon Anderson, Washington Capitals, F/A **
Austin Fyten, Philadelphia Flyers, F/A
Reid Jackson, Calgary Flames, F/A
Brody Sutter, Carolina Hurricanes, 2011

Medicine Hat Tigers
Tyler Bunz, Edmonton Oilers, 2010
Dylan Busenius, Minnesota Wild, F/A
Emerson Etem, Anaheim Ducks, 2010 **
Cole Grbavac, Dallas Stars, F/A
Kale Kessy, Phoenix Coyotes, 2011
Sebastian Owuya, Atlanta Thrashers, 2010
Tyler Pitlick, Edmonton Oilers, 2010 **
Alex Theriau, Dallas Stars, 2011
Kellan Tochkin, Vancouver Canucks, F/A **
Linden Vey, Los Angeles Kings, 2009 **

Moose Jaw Warriors
Cody Beach, St. Louis Blues, 2010
Collin Bowman, New York Rangers, F/A
Joel Edmundson, St. Louis Blues, 2011
Dallas Ehrhardt, Calgary Flames, F/A
Quinton Howden, Florida Panthers, 2010 **
Kendall McFaull, Winnipeg Jets, 2010
Dylan McIlrath, New York Rangers, 2010

Prince Albert Raiders
Antoine Corbin, San Jose Sharks, F/A
Brandon Herrod, Phoenix Coyotes, F/A
Mark McNeill, Chicago Blackhawks, 2011
Jonathan Parker, Buffalo Sabres, F/A
Harrison Ruopp, Phoenix Coyotes, 2011

Red Deer Rebels

Turner Elson, Calgary Flames, F/A
Byron Froese, Chicago Blackhawks, 2009 **
Adam Kambeitz, Phoenix Coyotes, F/A
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, 2011 **
John Persson, New York Islanders, 2011
Alexander Petrovic, Florida Panthers, 2010 **
Justin Weller, Phoenix Coyotes, 2009 **

Regina Pats
Artem Bidlevskii, New York Islanders, F/A
Ricard Blidstrand, Philadelphia Flyers, 2010
Brandon Davidson, Edmonton Oilers, 2010
Campbell Elynuik, Philadelphia Flyers, F/A
Garrett Mitchell, Washington Capitals, 2009 **
Jordan Weal, Los Angeles Kings, 2010 **

Saskatoon Blades

Brent Benson, Carolina Hurricanes, F/A
Chris Collins, Phoenix Coyotes, F/A
Darren Dietz, Montreal Canadiens, 2011 **
Darian Dziurzynski, Phoenix Coyotes, 2011
Stefan Elliott, Colorado Avalanche, 2009 **
Curtis Hamilton, Edmonton Oilers, 2010
Josh Nicholls, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2010
Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia Flyers, 2009 **
Duncan Siemens, Colorado Avalanche, 2011 **
Matej Stransky, Dallas Stars, 2011

Swift Current Broncos
Adam Lowry, Winnipeg Jets, 2011
Richard Nedomlel, Detroit Red Wings, 2011
Reece Scarlett, New Jersey Devils, 2011
Steffen Soberg, Washington Capitals, 2011